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The Chi-Rho and other “Christograms”

April 27, 2011

Last night, my wife and I watched the final episode of Neil Oliver’s series on the History of Britain, this one dealing with the Roman impact on ancient Britain.  Overall, so far as I can judge, interesting and informative.  But one thing got up my nose, and prompts me to correct and clarify.

At one point, Oliver pointed to remains of a hoard of precious items dated to the 4th century, on several of which there was a “chi-rho” (the device formed by superimposing the Greek capital letter “rho” on the letter “chi”).  As he pointed to the device, Oliver opined that it was indicative of early Christian secrecy, a coded device intended only for fellow Christians in the know.  Complete rubbish!

The chi-rho is in fact one of several such devices, called often by scholars “Christograms” (i.e., monogram-type devices referring to Jesus).  The chi-rho itself was not invented by Christians, but was appropriated from prior use (in which it was used as an abbreviation for various words).  But it also commended itself for Christian usage, as the letters “chi” and “rho” are the first two letters of the Greek word Χριστος (christos).

But there was no secret purpose in using the device.  It was not intended to conceal Christians or Christian faith.  Indeed, the whole notion (which seems strangely popular) that early Christians operated secretively has little basis.  In fact, all during the second century when persecution was intensifying, Christians such as Justin Martyr were writing formal treatises to the imperial authorities demanding fair treatment and openly laying out Christian beliefs and practices.  And, of course, the date of the items Oliver was pointing too was well after the legal recognition of Christianity, when, in any case, there was no need for secrecy.  We really should expect BBC programmes to avoid such obvious howlers.

To return to the chi-rho, earliest known Christian usage is dated to the third century.  Actually, the earliest of the various “christograms” is the tau-rho (the capital rho superimposed on the capital tau, the device resembling a capital “P” superimposed on a capital “T”).  We have examples of this device in several copies of NT writings dated to ca. 175-250 CE (P75, P66 and P45).  And it’s still more intriguing that the letters in this device (also appropriated from prior non-Christian usage) don’t represent any name or word.  Instead, the device is used as part of the special way that the Greek words “cross” and “crucify” are written in these manuscripts, and it seems intended to serve as a “pictographic” representation of a crucified figure, Jesus.  This makes it the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus, some 150 or more years earlier than what art historians have tended to see as the first depiction of the crucified Jesus.

For more discussion, see my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 135-54, and/or my essay “The Staurogram” (a PDF of the manuscript is on the “Essays, etc” page of this blog site), and my earlier posting on the “staurogram”:

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One Comment
  1. Melissa Fitzpatrick permalink

    This is truly fascinating. On a somewhat but not totally related note, a few years ago I was on a study tour in Europe and one of our stops was the catacombs in Rome. People kept trying to insist that the catacombs were the place where persecuted Christians hid and found protection from the authorities, etc. The professor who was leading us was trying to debunk the whole secrecy myth but we weren’t taking it well. Truth be told, I was actually pretty disappointed myself since it sounded like a pretty great story. Pretty silly, really.

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